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Rouben Mamoulian-Centenary of His Birth

By Matthew Maroot
Staff Writer

When discussing prominent motion picture directors in todayís day and age we often hear names like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, or Martin Scorcese.  Take that discussion back several decades and the conversation quickly changes.  Youíre likely to hear names such as Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang, and undoubtedly, Rouben Mamoulian.

To honor the centenary of Mamoulian’s birth, the Armenian Studies Program at California State University, Fresno, offered a course entitled Armenian Studies 120T:  The Films of Rouben Mamoulian, as a tribute to the career of this magnificent director.  In this course, taught by Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies, students watched fifteen of Mamoulian’s films, each and every one a masterpiece in its own right.  Dr. Kouymjian was invited to Yerevan in October of 1997 by the Armenian Ministry of Culture and the American University of Armenia to present a ten-day film festival on Rouben Mamoulian on the occasion of his centenary.  “The excitement engendered by the twelve Mamoulian feature films shown in the Cinema House in the Armenian capital was more than even the organizers expected.  Audiences averaged 300 a showing and for many days there were after screenings at the AUA auditorium,” said Dr. Kouymjian.  On his decision to teach a film course strictly devoted to Mamoulianís films, Dr. Kouymjian noted, “Mamoulian’s 100th anniversary has passed essentially unremarked in the U.S., by Armenians and the American film industry, it seemed important and natural that I devoted my film course to Mamoulian this year.”

Born on October 8, 1898 in Tiflis, Mamoulian began his early studies at the Universities of Moscow and London, as well as the Vakhtangov Studio of the Moscow Art Theatre.  After arriving in America, in 1923, Mamoulian began what would become a successful directing career, eventually on Broadway.  “Mamoulian was called to Rochester New York by George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, to head up his American Opera Theatre.  Not yet 25 years old, Mamoulian directed twelve operas in three years, then went on to a Broadway career, directing again a dozen plays in the following three years,”  said Dr. Kouymjian.  After establishing himself as a successful Broadway director, Mamoulian was lured to the big screen in 1929 by Jesse Lasky and Walter Wanger of Paramount Studios.  The advent of sound in the movie industry or “talkies” as they came to be called, created a big push for directors, Mamoulian’s immense talents also made him a top choice.  According to Dr. Kouymjian, Mamoulian’s experience working with actors and the theatre was impressive, thus enabling him to simply apply what he had learned in the theatre to film.

Though Rouben Mamoulian is responsible for directing some of the most renowned actors and actresses in the history of cinema, it is surprising to realize that so few people remember him today.  “It is quite amazing how quickly Rouben Mamoulian has passed out of the public imagination.  It’s been almost ten years since his death, and except for the various articles last year in the press in Armenia, little has been done to mark either his 100th anniversary or his memory.  Mamoulianís films are such a pleasure to look at,” said Dr. Kouymjian.

Mamoulian’s cinematic achievements speak volumes for his talents as a director.  His films are wide-ranging in scope varying from horror to musicals. Each of his films possesses a certain unique quality, whether it be his impressionistic use of lighting, a captivating sense of realism, or dramatic special effects, Mamoulian’s films were certainly ahead of their time.  And when considering all of the technology at the disposal of directors today, one can come to appreciate Mamoulianís accomplishments even more.  Rouben Mamoulian, one of Americaís most dynamic film directors, passed away in 1987, in Beverly Hills.